MANILA, Philippines — It is not easy being green.
But husband and wife Dylan Wilk and Anna Meloto-Wilk have proven that living green can be done, and that it can be the starting point for nation-building.
Dylan is a successful British multi-millionaire who gave up his fast cars and wealthy lifestyle in England to work for the poor in Gawad Kalinga communities. Anna is daughter of GK founder Tony Meloto who carries helping the poor in her genetic make-up. Together, they have a shared mission to not only help save the environment, but also provide livelihood to uplift the lives of marginalized Filipinos.
Assigned to propagate the GK mission in the US for a couple of years, Dylan and Anna came back in 2007 to continue their work here. At that time, Anna had a hard time looking for products which were either organic or natural, and were affordable here in the Philippines.
“We noticed that natural and organic products were affordable to Americans. Anna was asking why it was only the Americans that could afford to use what’s good for them and what will save their environment. When we came back, she really wanted to do something to make natural products accessible to more Filipinos,” explains Dylan.
Anna’s love for her children was the main reason why she chose to go green. When she became a mother, she made sure that her daughters Ariel and Chloe got the best and the safest products, avoiding harmful chemicals and ingredients. She even avoided using disposable diapers after finding out that they take 500 years to decompose, and instead stuck to washable diapers despite the inconveniences. She also made sure that their children understand the concept of being green as it became part of their family’s lifestyle.
With this passion for a cleaner and sustainable environment came the idea of creating a line of organic products (that include shampoo, facial wash, lotion, perfume, lip balm, etc.) and make eco-lifestyle accessible to every Filipino.
Together, they established a social enterprise called Human Nature in November 2008, in line with the advocacy of GK – that of creating not only basic shelter but also sustainable communities.
Guided by the principles pro-poor, pro-environment, and pro-Philippines, Dylan and Anna believe that the only way a business can serve society well is if the business also benefits the country.
“I think that’s what makes us different and the reason why a lot of people came to us. We have people living in Forbes Park, different nationalities, and they’re not just doing it because they earn, but because they want to support what we believe in and what the community believes in. Young people who are growing up right now, they’re getting that sense of loving the country. In Human Nature, we perfectly fit what young people believe in. It’s sustainable, it’s good for you, it’s healthy. It’s about loving the country, loving the poor.”
Human Nature has also been employing GK residents as part of their full-time staff and has encouraged GK farmers to go organic. Aside from providing an income for thousands of GK residents, Human Nature teaches them to respect and save the environment.
In this 60 Minutes interview, Dylan and Anna share their life-changing experiences, learnings that young people can emulate, how their love story blossomed to a common love for the environment, and why they will never stop believing that this country will be great again. (Jaser Marasigan)
STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): There has been a global inclination towards things organic for the past decade. But for you personally, was there a specific light bulb moment when you realized that organic, all-natural living is the right thing to do?
ANNA MELOTO-WILK (AMW): There was no light bulb moment. It was a slow burn. It was one decision at a time, changing one little thing leading to another.
The whole natural lifestyle was very new to me before I got married, but Dylan has been practicing it for a while. In England, people are more conscious about their daily decisions, and a lot of the movements towards green started in the UK. When you go to school, they have programs on fair trade, they will tell you in the cafeteria if the food is organic or not.
Here in the Philippines, it still is in very early stages. When we got married, that’s when we started to change things. Whenever we went to the grocery, I would read the ingredients, something which I never did before. We tried to cut down on the chemicals that we use in the house. We don’t use air fresheners much. We really, really, stripped down.
Before our baby came, we researched on how to take care of babies and we were prepared and made sure that the food they would eat would be natural and didn’t have pesticides. It went as far as the diapers. When we found out that disposable diapers took more than 500 years to decompose, we made the decision to use washable diapers.
SCB: But who did the washing?
AMW: Since he introduced the decision, I took him to task (laughs)! We didn’t have anyone washing it. It’s adopting choices. It’s making sure that even if we have more kids, we don’t add to our carbon footprint. It’s amazing how much stuff a kid brings into the household and how much stuff gets thrown every year. Babies are not very eco-friendly (laughs)!
DYLAN WILK (DW): It totally changed our outlook on everything. Not a lot of people know that the reason her dad started Gawad Kalinga, ultimately, was because of his own kids.
When Anna was 13, her dad started a group called Youth for Christ, because he didn’t want her growing up as a teenager without a support group that he could trust would teach her the right values. That grew to Gawad Kalinga (GK)
Having kids makes you look at the world and you can either decide to protect your kids from everything bad that you see and build a huge wall around your house, or you try to fix some of the things that you see can have a bad effect on your kids. He chose to go and fix it and we just took inspiration from him and followed when our own kids were born. If wrecking the environment is going to mean our children not getting to see the beautiful word that we see today, then we’ll try and do something about that.
SCB: Since Dylan grew up leading an organic lifestyle, was switching to it a difficult adjustment for you, Anna?
AMW: There were certain parts of it that were difficult, but after a while, I got used to it. When we switched to washable diapers, I really had a hard time with that. Even when we were travelling, we’d still use washable diapers, and I remember the first couple of months when I was washing them that I would be crying (laughs). I didn’t go to college to wash pooey diapers! Why do I have to subject myself to what was in my mind unnecessary work, when there was so much more important things that I had to do? But if you want to secure the future of your kids, you can’t keep on living in an unsustainable way.
Pro-Philippines, pro-poor, pro-environment
SCB: There are so many organic products now out in the market. How is this different from other organic products out there?
AMW: We’re affordable than most natural and organic beauty products. We also wanted to make it accessible. We don’t really see the more high-end organic products as our main competitors. We just want to offer an alternative to the usual chemical products.
DW: It’s really the vision. We built this on three things. One, pro-Philippines. All of our products are produced here and we hope that eventually all ingredients will be grown here.
We have this passion fruit lipstick…I can’t believe I’m talking about lipstick (laughs)! I’m still working on an organic car (laughs), but for now it’s lipstick. We get ingredients for this passion fruit lipstick from a GK village in Davao that grows passion fruits. In the beginning they were selling it to traders for P10 a kilo. But we had to import the oil for that lipstick from the US because nobody in the Philippines mass produces the oil from passion fruit.
What we said was we’ll import the oil first, we’ll use all the profits from that lipstick to pay for the equipment for the GK site in Davao, and then by the end of this year, they’ll be producing the oil, and we’ll buy from them, their income will multiply considerably, and there will be another product made with Philippine ingredients.
Two, we’re pro-poor. By working with those communities, we improve their quality control, we look at what they are selling the ingredients for right now and how much does it give them. What do they need to get good quality of life, and then we figure out how we can pay that, and it’s usually a lot higher than what they’re currently selling it for.
Three, we’re pro-environment. We only use ingredients that are not damaging to the environment and are biodegradable. I think we’re the first natural company in the world to do all of that and make it affordable.
SCB: So this is how you do social entrepreneurship…
DW: We’re set up as a social enterprise, it’s not just about maximizing profit, we look at our whole supply chain and figure out how we can make it better for the communities. We’ve been able to donate a public school, we’ve been able to provide them healthcare, we’ve been able to pay for their equipment to expand.
For example, we’re now starting sunflower planting again here in the Philippines. We can get that ingredients much more cheaply in India or China, but this is our home and our home needs our help. We want to get these farmers to world-class standards and hopefully, the price will come down and be able to match the prices of those countries, although that is not our real objective. Our real objective is to support them and build them up.
SCB: How are you distributing the products and making people know that you exist and that your vision is noble?
DW: We started through direct selling, and that was how we wanted to build it first. The Secretary of Education and I were both giving a talk and he was saying that the average teacher takes homes less than P3,000 a month after the deductions! I found this totally shocking because you have a choice. If you want to feed your family, you can’t be a teacher, unless there’s another breadwinner. Or if you really want to be a teacher, you really have to find a way of earning. We decided to make it available through direct selling so ordinary people could maybe earn, even if it’s just a few thousand pesos a month.
But many people wanted to buy the products but didn’t know where to find them. So we started out with Rustan’s, who really believed in our advocacy.
SCB: Do you work only with farmers?
DW: Not only the farmers. There is this printing business in Payatas set up by Mike Go, an Ateneo graduate and a GK volunteer. When they started out, his people were just earning P120 a day. So we say, this is not going to work, they can earn more from scavenging. We looked at the business plan also and now, the people are earning about P500 a day.
SCB: How did you do it?
DW: Simple, we said "How much do we have to pay for those t-shirts and bags for them to earn P500 a day?" It only needed for us to pay additional P2 per item for these people to earn P500 a day instead of P120. So it’s very possible! It’s a smaller margin but you just go there and see the out-of-school
Go, young people, go
SCB: Is social entrepreneurship something even young people can go into?
DW: This is something that we would love to see young people doing. Students, if you’re taking a course in business, I hope your goal is to start your own business and not just work for multinationals.
The best students, when they graduate, they usually have two goals — to leave the country, or work with multinationals. In both cases, they are giving all their talent, genius and creativity to make other countries rich.
I grew up in England, I got free education, free healthcare, my mother was on government benefits, she was a single parent, free housing, everything. Who paid for those things? Filipinos did. Everytime you brought a British product, the profit went to my country and sent me to school. So I owe my education to Filipinos! Those Filipinos who graduated and worked for multinationals that enabled my country to really prosper around the world.
SCB: Aside from verbally encouraging students to be entrepreneurs, do you have projects that can inspire and jumpstart their entrepreneurship?
DW: It would be good for them to visit a farm called the Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan, in a GK site. It was set up by Anna’s dad and he formed a group called CSI, Center for Social Innovation. A lot of students go there and they try their ideas. So they come up with an Iced Tea called Enchantea, which is made from natural ingredients. They have goat cheese, Filipino chocolates, duck egg — not for balut (laughs). All sorts of exciting things are going on and these were students that started it all.
SCB: What if the students do not have rich parents to rely on for capital?
DW: The one thing that we really lack in the Philippines for the young people to get started is the support system. If you don’t have your own capital, it’s very difficult to get going. If you don’t have your own land, your family doesn’t have any business, it’s very difficult to get going.
When I started my business in England, the only way I could begin was because Prince Charles has a foundation to help young people to start businesses. And so he provided the capital of the loan — interest-free loan — and he assigned a mentor, one who I could just talk to once a week or a couple of times a week to ask questions. That was the only way I could start a business because no one in my family has money. And I started a computer games business that just grew very fast, very, very successful as you may have already heard.
In the Philippines, we don’t really have much like that yet. But the Enchanted Farm is supposed to be something like that, where at least the resources are there, at least the young people have ideas to try them out. And I really encourage young people who are doing this. When you graduate, at least give yourselves a couple of years to start your own business and make it fly. Usually, we find people who are pressured by the parents, to go and work for multi-nationals, getting a good job, start earning, repay for all those diapers that the parents bought (laughs). No, but we really believe that there’s so much talent here, it’s a waste. It’s that talent given to companies that are going to take all the profits and that talent back somewhere else. We need that talent here, working for this country.
Doing good and doing well
SCB: When you talk to young people today, they think taking part in the Gawad Kalinga is a very hip thing to do. How has Human Nature been marketing itself to young people to make itself seem attractive?
AMW: The young generation now is also conscientious about their daily choices. And it’s not all about the money. You know, maybe a decade or two ago, the Filipino dream or the American dream was to have a fancy car, to have a high-paying job, to be the quintessential yuppie, look smart and all of those things, have a corner office. But now, young people want to find work that is more meaningful, where they also can express creativity and values. It’s not focused on themselves. They’re more aware of poverty, of environmental degradation, that the choice they make has a direct impact on other people.
DW: Young people now really deeply love this country. I’ve seen quite an attitude shift in the last eight years that I’ve been here. When I first came here, and I would ask people of the Philippines what they could tell me, most of the people would say something on the negative side. They talk about corruption, traffic, the problems. But a lot of what people say now is very positive. They talk about loving the country. You see a lot of Philippine flags now. You know, I’ve never seen a Philippine flag on a billboard for maybe the first couple of years. Now, you see a lot of them.
AMW: Previously, for new graduates, when confronted with what they have to do with their life, it would just be two things — either they do good, or they do well. “Doing good’’ meaning they want to join a charity, they want to join an NGO, really serve humanity through service. But the reward for it in terms of monetary compensation, traditionally, is not very much.
On the other side of the fence is if you want to do well, then you join the traditional, multi-national profit-business and climb up the corporate ladder and get as high as you can and enjoy the perks of it. There was no middle ground, no career path for those who want to do good and well at the same time. That’s when social enterprises, social businesses come in.
SCB: In your school talks, what do you tell them basically?
AMW: We tell them that there is a third career path, it’s not only a choice between doing good and doing well — you could choose doing something in between. Use all your creativity, your energy, your passion to create a sustainable business that will not only secure your future, but will also secure the future of the whole Philippines, majority of which is still living in poverty.
SCB: What are some of the memorable school talks you’ve done?
AMW: I remember going to Philippine Science High School, to U.P., Ateneo, and then to schools in the University Belt. I get excited especially with the schools that are science-based and those that offer technical courses because I think we have a lot of technical talent, scientific minds in the Philippines. We really need to support our scientists and technical people.
In our research and development team, we have formulators as young as 22 years old, really brilliant! I think that the talent is really out there, it’s not just being supported because any emerging talent that seems to be excelling is immediately snatched up by the multi-nationals to work in other countries.
DW: So we also made a decision that we will heavily invest in research and development here, and we’ll really look for the best scientists that we can find and bring them in. Coming from the U.K., I would say Filipinos are much better than the British in terms of planning and organization because you’re much more relational. It’s just that we’re heavily supported in the U.K., right from five years old and up.
SCB: How do you want Human Nature to grow in succeeding years?
DW: We hope that it continues to grow and come up with great products. The abundance of raw materials, the quality of our ingredients, it will really continue to enable communities to prosper. That’s really our vision when we started, that it could be used to develop communities.
Beyond that, I hope that it will really inspire young people to start their own businesses that will be pro-Philippines, businesses that will support the country and not just import cheap stuff from China. Hopefully it will inspire other businesses to be more pro-Philippines as well and look at their own supply chain, figure out ways they could be more pro-Philippines.
Selecta for example, they used to import all their ube. They are now planting ube in Palawan for their ube ice cream even though it’s more expensive and more difficult. That’s an example of what a big company can do to be more pro-Philippines.
SCB: But at the end of the day, Human Nature is still a business and not a charity…
DW: That’s why we have to be sustainable, we still have to be profitable. And we’re responsible for over 60 full-time employees. We have 18 branches that are also dependent with their livelihood on us. We have to make it work for all of them, but at the same time, it’s not all about the profit, it’s not whatever we earn that goes to the pocket of the business owners or the stakeholders but the use of that profit is carefully discerned in terms of how we can serve society.
Helping in her genes
SCB: For Anna, growing up as the daughter of Tony Meloto, is it natural for you to gravitate towards advocacies like GK?
AMW: I think it’s natural. If you grow up in an environment where you see your parents putting other people’s needs first before them, then you find it normal. Even when I started to come of age, when I formed decisions, formed my own values, so I tried new things. Okay, I didn’t want to work for an NGO, or with him, so I tried out working in a traditional corporate environment. But after a few years, I realized it’s not natural for me in that environment. I was still looking for something more, to help other people and make things better for my country.
SCB: Is this process of discovery something you advise the youth to do?
AMW: Yes, so that at the end of it, they have more conviction in their decisions. If it is something they really feel that came from their own commitment and not just something imposed on them.
SCB: How did your father expose you early on to the realities of life?
AMW: He brought me to Bagong Silang, the first community that he opened and I was 16 then. The reputation of that place was that it was the biggest university of crime in Metro Manila. It’s also the biggest barangay with 400,000 families at that time. The thing that he organized at that time was for the out-of-school youths, juvenile delinquents, and gang members. He gathered all the gang leaders and members and enticed them with food, tried to introduce God in their lives, it’s some kind of program to help rehabilitate them.
SCB: Weren’t you scared facing these people which you are not used to encountering?
AMW: Common sense says it’s not something that is practical and something that you should do. You have your daughter and you’re bringing her to the lion’s den? But for him, it was more of a peace offering, a signal to those people that look, I care so much about you that I’m willing to bring my own family. You know where I live, you know what I want to do so it’s not something just for show. Having my father there gave me a lot of security. Whatever happens he will be there to protect me.
SCB: Having a family of your own now, how do you influence your children with your advocacies?
DW: One thing that reinforces them is show them a solution. When they see the problem and know that there are many poor kids, every night, they pray for poor children actually. We want to raise them with that mindset that whatever the problem that you see in the world, there’s a way of fixing it. You don’t just run away from these things.
From Ferraris to slum areas
SCB: Before involving yourself in GK, what were you doing?
DW: My life before was all about fast cars, skiing, helicopters, a life of pleasure that became a life of boredom. You try something new, after a while you buy something else — a new car, a much faster car and so on. I remember when I bought a Ferrari, I always wanted one since I was a kid. I bought this Ferrari particularly, I was going out looking at it everyday, driving it even if I had nowhere to go and I love that car. For six weeks, it was the most important thing in my life. And after six weeks, the feeling wore off and that’s when I realized something was wrong because I started to think, what will I buy next?
I had to check myself, there is something seriously wrong with you. You wanted this for your whole life and when you got it, it’s not enough. That’s when I started questioning and I started to pray again. I said, “Lord, why am I rich? Why did you make me one, there must be a reason.”
So I decided to sell my business, leave it and go around the world looking for charities, something I could do to help. Giving money is not also satisfying in the same way as buying things that are not satisfying. Tony Meloto told me it’s only when you personally have a stake in it, you share something beyond your money that’s when it becomes fulfilling.
SCB: Dylan, when you first arrived in the country in 2003, what was the first thing that struck you?
DW: What I knew then about the Philippines was just Abu Sayyaf, Imelda’s shoes, and Smokey Mountain. It was a little worrying because driving around, you could see a lot of poverty everywhere.
But when Anna’s dad started showing me around, it just blew my mind, people were smiling, people were waving, asking me if I had eaten. You’re the hungry one I should be the one offering you something to eat, why are you asking me if I had eaten? We went to Bagong Silang at a GK village and people seemed happy!
SCB: Did you stay for long initially?
DW: I just stayed for one day actually and I went back to England. I sent an email to Tony Meloto and said I’d like to send you some money to build a village, where do I send it? He said, don’t just send your money, if you really want to help, you come back and learn more about GK. So I decided to take him up on it and I came back. That one request changed my life.
SCB: How was it the first few months that you were actually living in the Philippines?
DW: For six months, I was living in the GK Mission House, it had no air-conditioning, no hot water, everywhere you look there were cockroaches (laughs). Coming from the lifestyle I had before, it was a huge change but somehow it didn’t matter.
It was the most exciting few months of my life. I really felt that I found God in this place. I felt I found people who were living the Christian faith. In England the way you live out your Christian faith is just go to church on Sundays and that’s it. Here, people are really putting themselves in harm’s way, in danger for the sake of what they believe so they can build their country and serve God. It was the first time I really felt that I really met true Christians, nothing else matters.
SCB: What did your mother say, you giving up a lot of things to come to a country like the Philippines?
DW: My family thought that I was bring brainwashed by a cult! My mother even came here to check up on me and she followed me around for two weeks. When she went back to England she told my sister that this is not a cult, it’s people really doing good work. My sister said, “They brainwashed you as well!” (laughs). Now, they all believe in it, my mom even built a village in Leyte, she has a village there. She comes every year to stay connected with GK also.
SCB: But if you were enjoying your stay, how come you were losing weight the first months?
DW: Because I didn’t like rice, I don’t like fried foods. So, I didn’t eat fried chicken, pork or rice (laughs). But it was really the best year of my life, I can say that.
SCB: You went around the world to look for charities, why GK and why this country?
DW: It was the first one that convinced me that it is working. I saw a lot of programs building houses but after two or three years, it’s a slum again. I saw a lot of people trying to help the poor. In GK, it’s not just about cosmetic improvement, paint the house and that’s it. The people are totally transformed.
But even then I wasn’t planning on staying it was Tony Meloto that invited me to come back and my plan was just to stay for six weeks and then after six weeks I decided six months. I really fell in love with the country, I fell in love with Gawad Kalinga, I fell in love with my wife (laughs). It kind of happened.
SCB: We Filipinos are more attuned to what our problems are and we just glossed over our good traits. Looking from the outside in, what do you think are the good traits that we sometimes overlook?
DW: Number one, in my mind — heroism. In GK, people would sacrifice their weekends so they can help the poor. That’s very heroic. You can be out somewhere doing something for yourself, which is how we are raised in the West where it’s all about me. Heroism is a ubiquitous trait in every Filipino. Almost every Filipino I meet is capable of great heroism and actually practices it in some way in their lives.
I also appreciate family values. In the West, families are breaking down because we’ve become a very selfish society. A million children in the US take anti-depressants. They have all the toys, all the money but their families are not with them. In the Philippines that’s where I really learned family values, how to compromise, to put others first.
Third is faith. I saw faith being lived out, not just being preached or just practiced in church.
Lastly, you’re all so joyful in the face of all your problems. You’re always smiling, you’re always laughing, you’re always eating, you find a way to get through it! (laughs)
SCB: How Filipino are you, Dylan?
DW: Everything except my stomach (laughs). Pusong Pinoy, English stomach.
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